First-ever seed harvest at Nebraska sanctuary

Farm Forum

GIBBON, Neb. (AP) – Gathering seeds from Nebraska’s native and restored prairies remains a hands-on, one-plant-at-a-time job that is repeated several times over late summer and fall.

On a morning last week, with the temperature already into the 80s and the heat index much higher, seed gatherers walked around the John J. Dinan Memorial Bird Conservation Area along the Platte River at the Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary southwest of Gibbon.

It was the first prairie seed harvest at Rowe Sanctuary and the focus was on spiderwort, sideoats grama and poppy mallow plants, the Kearney Hub reported.

“We are sort of stealing from our partners, the Prairie Plains Institute (at Aurora) and The Nature Conservancy, which have been doing this a long time,” said Rowe’s Director of Conservation Andrew Pierson.

Mardell Jasnowski from TNC’s Aurora office, a veteran of seed harvests at TNC’s prairies, presented a how-to program recently for Rowe staff and volunteers.

Pierson said grasslands make up around 2,000 of Rowe Sanctuary’s 2,400 acres. The grasslands include 1,500-1,600 acres that can be defined as prairie, with 400-500 acres of restored prairie on what previously were croplands or, as in the case of the Dinan tract, riparian woodlands.

“We are going to collect seeds from those (restored) acres because they are very diverse and young,” Pierson said. “We planted high-diversity seed and that has been retained.”

He explained that diversity reflects a prairie’s state of health. He compared the diverse Dinan tract to Rowe’s nearby Pierce property grassland that is a monoculture of invasive cool-season grasses.

“The goal is to move seeds from some of the most diverse acres to the least diverse acres,” Pierson said. “… We’re very early, at the beginning of when most of those plants go to seed. We’ll be doing this several more times and each time we will be targeting different plant species.”

He expects the next harvest day sometime in August to focus on milkweed and penstemon seeds.

How long the series of harvests last depends on the plants. “At some point the plants stop growing,” said Anne Winkel, Rowe’s community outreach coordinator.

Timing is critical, she said, especially for plants that have a narrow seed gathering window.

Dry seeds also are important, so some of last week’s collection will be bagged and stored until they are dry. “We don’t intend to store a lot of seeds over the winter,” Pierson said, adding that seeds collected dry from the fields may be sowed elsewhere almost immediately.

“We will try to be opportunistic. If there are places we have grazed down, we’re more confident because we can get the seeds to the dirt,” he said, and another good planting opportunity will be this fall in a grassland scheduled for a prescribed burn.

When Winkel briefed volunteers Don Brockmeier of Eustis and Darwin Hinrichs and Courtney Wilhelm of Gibbon prior to last week’s harvest, she said, “In a lot of prairie seed harvesting, you feel like you’re just walking around. And you are because you’re scouting for certain species.”

When asked why she was spending her morning off from work to help harvest prairie seeds, Wilhelm talked about her daughters, ages 12 and 9, who recently attended the Platte River Safari and Flying Higher nature camps at Rowe Sanctuary.

“It makes me a little emotional,” she said as she walked through tall prairie grasses carrying a knife and seed collection bucket, “but I feel like our Earth is so important we should take care of it.